Letter to Sister Paula
(in english – translation : Dominique MACABIES)
Paula is a Portuguese missionary sister of the Community of the Servants of the Gospel. She is 46 years of age and currently lives and works in Japan. We have been introduced by a mutual friend, who gave her my address. Her mail struck me as being so pregnant in issues particularly relevant to the Church position on homosexuality, so indicative of the ignorance and uptightness of many faithful Catholics against the homosexual desire, that I decided to take the time to respond at length. I found this woman’s genuine search for truth touching, as well as her humility.
I will first copy her email and then attempt to answer her questions:
« Dear Philip,
How are you? It is a pleasure to meet you, even by e-mail. I am a Portuguese missionary in the same community as Celine, the Servants of the Gospel. My name is Paula and I live and work in Japan. I think Celine has already written to you about the subject I would like you to advise me about. Thank you for your time, first. Let me give you a little background information. A Japanese boy, a Catholic, has in recent months decided to quit his job better to do some thinking over his future because, while walking the Saint Jacques pilgrimage roads, he came to sense that maybe God was calling him to follow Him as a priest. He is not yet quite sure whether his place is with us, the Servants, but he asked us to accompany him on his path to discernment. We realize that, while he was baptized at birth (unlike the majority of Japanese Catholics, who receive the baptism of adults), he finds it hard to trust the teachings of the Church and it sometimes becomes a real stumbling stone on the way to deepening his vocation. When I explained to him that often we must distinguish between the official position of the Church and Pastoral Care, he said it was very difficult to understand, because it feels hypocritical. He recently expressed doubts over the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. He says he is not gay and does not know anyone who is. However, he is keen on understanding the Church teaching on the subject, otherwise he fears that, once a priest, he may be unable to put into practice what the Church teaches and eventually have to give up the idea of the priesthood. “Right now, that is causing him to really put his calling into question. He has read the comments on the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on pastoral care for homosexual persons and it does not agree with his own views. He thinks it does not fit with Jesus’ attitude: a loving and merciful one. It would contradict the Gospel”. He also believes that it is not fair. Heterosexuals have the choice: matrimonial life or chastity dedicated to God, whereas gays only have the option of chastity”. Since I’m not gay, it’s really hard for me to form an opinion. I checked a little, but I do not know what opinion to accept as fair. I admit my ignorance on this subject and that is why I’m asking for your help: you are both gay and a Catholic; would you mind answering a few questions? For example, would you agree with the following?: “However, the homosexual person’s particular inclination is still a tendency, a more or less strong one, to adopt a conduct that is intrinsically evil from a moral standpoint. Therefore, that inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”. (Excerpt from the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the pastoral care of homosexual persons). In actual fact, do you think the homosexual inclination is a disorder, and do you consider homosexual behavior as intrinsically evil? I personally find it difficult to understand this statement since homosexuality is part of the person’s structural makeup, even though it may not be genetic in most cases; why should it be a disorder? I am ignorant on the subject, but I sincerely had rather a homosexual could be changed into a heterosexual by means of a therapy of some sort. Yet, from what I’ve read, psychologists believe this is not acceptable, nor advisable, even if some groups support the change and call it conversion, am I right? So, how do you understand your sexual orientation and live by it? Do you agree with the following statement found in the same letter? “In reality, we must also acknowledge that those who have a homosexual tendency enjoy the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives it its special dignity. Because of this freedom, and the same applies to any other attempt at total rejection of evil, human effort, informed and sustained by the grace of God, will enable them to avoid homosexual activity”. Do you believe a homosexual person can avoid any sexual activity and should do so for their own good? Do you support the option of chastity for all gay Christians? Or, do you think the Church should be more open? In what direction? For example, do you think the Catholic pastoral care of homosexuals should be oriented towards supporting fidelity in stable homosexual couples? Is your personal experience of the Church different from the image that is presented just by reading that letter? Could you recommend a bibliography to enable me to become better informed about this? (Either concerning homosexuality or the Church standpoint). Allow me another question: what do you think about marriages between homosexuals and their adopting children? Please forgive me, as I realize I have been putting you through a tough questioning session! This should tell you how ignorant I am in these matters. Thank you wholeheartedly for your cooperation. I am looking forward to hearing from you, God bless you. Paula.«
On second thoughts, I think I will try to reply in writing to your mail: it has stirred a lot of answers that I think are worth developing because they can be used by many other people, too. We can talk over the phone if you want… especially if we manage to coordinate our schedules!ˆˆ
If you don’t mind, I’ll read out your letter in a kind of linear fashion, so as not to miss a beat.
You write that the boy “finds it hard to trust the teachings of the Church and this sometimes becomes a real obstacle to deepening his calling”. At the risk of seeming a bit harsh and too straightforward from the start, I would say that I think one cannot consider going into the priesthood unless one loves the Catholic Church deeply and trusts it entirely; or if one accepts to be inspired and influenced by the misleading and shameful blotches on its reputation rumored around by the media these days (alleging the Church is still somewhat “backward” on some issues, out of step with social change and “narrow-minded”). The Catholic Church is human, flawed, but still divinely inspired: it is holy, despite all the human crap in it. That should never be doubted! Granted, confidence is something necessarily arbitrary and blind, but let me tell you I have oftentimes had the opportunity to experience how accurate the message of the Gospel is, and the same is true of the Pope’s and the Vatican institution’s. For example, let’s start talking about my homosexuality: I have always trusted the rather abrupt and dry message found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the matter, telling myself that the Church was right, though I could not yet understand why; that I would understand later; I had to do my own investigations to find other more personal words and compensate for the brevity of the Church standpoint. And finally, as of today, I do not regret such stubborn blindness at all! Even though I would not put things the way the Pope or even a St. Paul did, even though I have appropriated their message about homosexuality to express it in a more humane way, I have returned to the fold of my Church; I vindicate it and support its opinions. The Church is right when speaking against homosexuality, saying that homosexual acts are intrinsically disorderly. It is right to request continent celibacy. It is right when expressing its distrust of homosexual couples and homosexual desire. And who says so? A man like me, who has studied the subject thoroughly and written four books about it, while spending 10 years in homo associations! Not a boy who pays lip service to his opinions because he fails to accept his own homosexuality or to even approach it. Confidence in the Church – which is definitely not synonymous with absence of a critical mind or conscientious submission to any school of thought – is never disappointing, because I believe it, deep down, to be right and amazing. Yes, I claim more and more boldly that I am part of this family, the Catholic Church, and I am shocked at all the abuses my grandfather has to endure because he has the courage to air outloud what needs to be said about homosexuality, or about many other issues of sexual morality for that matter. It’s by reading his original texts and what Benedict XVI says that one realizes he is no way like the frustrated person the media make him out to be. Besides, he keeps tightly up to date with current events.
“When I explain to him that often we must distinguish between the official position of the Church and Pastoral Care, he finds it very difficult to understand, because he feels it is hypocritical”. I fully understand he can’t go along with that line of thinking, separating theory and practice, the High Church and the Church for the rank and file (although I see which way you put it: the Vatican is in duty bound to articulate a moral framework, a general discourse, while afterwards adapting it on a case by case basis, allowing for exceptions, according to individuals and to unexpected human circumstances). This young man should be praised for “wincing” at our lukewarm attitudes and our temptations to dissociate ourselves from our institution to avoid living up to its demands, or from the bad image of ourselves that we would put across! At least, this is evidence that he is unconsciously keen on the Unity of the Church, that he is seeking truth, that he yearns for strong consistency between words and deeds, that he wants to fully embrace the Church, or not at all! I believe he should keep the share of beauty arising from his revolt (i.e. the search for Truth) while also consenting to the mystery of obedience. “Obeying” means “loving” when you pledge obedience to the right master.
“Recently, he expressed his doubts over the Church teaching on homosexuality. He said he is not gay and he does not know anyone who is. However, he insists on understanding the Church teaching on this subject, otherwise he fears that, once a priest, he may be unable to put into practice what the Church teaches and might eventually have to give up committing to the Catholic priesthood”. It’s great that this boy is so intense, and that he is willing to get out of his comfort zone, to step into territory he a priori does not know much about (the gay world), and that he wants to exercise his apostolate by getting to grips with the real world. Please express my congratulations and encourage him to continue to “dig up the bullshit”, and never let himself be pushed around or sign a contract without being aware of all the provisions in it. So long as he accepts that we cannot keep control over everything, no more than grasp all God’s intelligence…
“Right now, that is causing him to really put his calling into question. He has read the comments on the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on pastoral care for homosexual persons and it does not agree with his own views. He thinks it does not fit with Jesus’ attitude: a loving and merciful one. It would contradict the Gospel”. I totally understand this gut reaction. Then, one realizes that the impression we get of a lack of openness is not so much a matter of content as of the brevity of the articles in the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Obviously, the message of the Church, even though it is not false, needs to be refined, made more precise, and it will then look more loving. I personally find that it still does not sufficiently deal with the matter of homosexual desire per se, nor with its connection with rape. That is why it can hardly carry much weight against the self-righteous discourse of unconditional openness to the other. The boy you speak about should not forget that “love thy neighbor” does not mean always approving people unreservedly, but may sometimes lead to saying “no” and expressing a requirement laid down quite firmly. Jesus would always welcome others unconditionally, but he assessed their acts with many reservations and demands, indeed! That is because he upholds Love as much as he feels for the people loved by this Love. Also because He empowers us, confronts us with our human limitations and our personal freedom. If he deemed us worthless, he would not bother to oppose our fantasies – though well-meaning as well, sometimes – when we believe we can take ourselves for Him. Quite the contrary: Jesus does not accept the adulteress with cutesy smiles and relativist open-mindedness: He loves her deeply, and that’s why He also tells her bluntly: “Go and sin no more”. He welcomes the person, but abhors sin. It makes an explicit request, which condemns the act, while uplifting the sinful soul. That’s why I consider the Church message on homosexuality as quite demanding but very evangelical, too. It is the bitterness that comes with the offered cup.
“He also feels it is not fair. Heterosexuals have the choice: matrimonial life and chastity dedicated to God, whereas gays only have the option of chastity”. Well, first, let us agree on the meaning of words. Chastity is not equivalent to abstinence or continence: it is also to be experienced in a male-female couple, or with friends, or even between an artist and his work of art, because this is the right distance that makes the relationship possible, by resisting a destructive fusion-relationship. Then again, the call to continence for homosexuals is, admittedly, somewhat abrupt, I agree. It raised much doubt in me, too, at the time when I started to act in accordance with my homosexual desire. I would find myself attending masses where the homosexual condition was not even mentioned (on occasions such as the “Day for Callings” or “Family Sunday”). In their homilies, priest would suggest only two possible options to follow Christ: either the married couple (which I could not live by), or consecrated celibacy as experienced in the priesthood (which I could not opt for either, since homosexuals were barred from seminaries). This was somewhat narrow-minded and panicky, I thought. At the time, I almost shed tears over it and I silently begged the Lord, “But Lord, what path is there for us, gay people?? What is the way out?? Why should I be denied the right to love, too, since you gave me a heart made for love?” However revolted I used to feel, I did not leave the church for all that (my faith was too strong). It incited me to question myself, and opened a new path. Besides, over time, I understood that this limited and narrow path of continence offered to homosexuals was not a condemnation of Love, but rather a specific request that specifically acknowledged we homosexuals were unique; and also that it was a path that was neither easier nor more difficult to walk than marriage or the priesthood: it involves the same renunciation, the same complete gift of self, the same freedom. It is no less a way where one can truly love. The measuring rod of our degree of freedom and happiness is not the number of choices available to us, but indeed our exclusive choice of a single person, whether it be a person of the so called « opposite sex » or Jesus. Besides, homosexuals are not deprived of Jesus: on account of the limitations restricting their desire, they are specifically geared towards the “better part”. So why should they complain, or weep for being excluded from the model presented by our highly eroticized society as the only structure of true love? Somehow, their homosexual condition prepares them more directly and firmly to the royal wedding in heaven. If they know how to make the best of it, it is a chance for them to be somehow forced, by an inner desire that they have not chosen, into dedicating themselves completely to the person of Jesus, since they are not called by the Church to experience something else with someone else. The Church asks them right away to do something great, crazy even by humanly terms, but glorious in eternity. They should rejoice! However, this only makes sense in the light of faith and the Resurrection.
“Since I’m not gay, it’s really hard for me to form an opinion. I checked a little, but I do not know what opinion to accept as fair. I admit my ignorance on this subject and that is why I’m asking for your help: you are both gay and a Catholic; would you mind answering a few questions?” Don’t be afraid, Paula, of expressing your impressions, your opinion or reasoned judgments. Homosexuality is human. Even though not everyone is attracted to it, everyone is entitled to their own views about it, and everyone is entitled to talk about – including “heterosexual” priests! – since reflecting on desire concerns everyone. Homosexuality is not the special preserve of homosexuals, even though most of them suggest it is, to avoid having to hear what relevant views the outside world can express regarding the numerous limitations on their desire. It is our duty, as Christians, to position ourselves. Indeed, I’ve seen so-called “heterosexuals” deal with homosexuality with much more relevance and perspective than those who have their nose to the ground and so little perspective on themselves! So, do trust yourself.
“You are both gay and a Catholic; would you mind answering a few questions? For example, would you agree with the following?: ‘However, the homosexual person’s particular inclination is still a tendency, a more or less strong one, to adopt a conduct that is intrinsically evil from a moral standpoint. Therefore, that inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder’ (Excerpt from the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithon the pastoral care of homosexual persons)”. In actual fact, do you think the homosexual inclination is a disorder, and do you consider homosexual behavior as intrinsically evil?” Yes, I agree with that. Yes, these words are blunt to be sure, but they’re right. And yes I can say that I support that view, having witnessed the inner and outer chaos resulting from the justification of homosexual desire in the lives of those who blindly indulged it as if it was a desire that fully defined them or was equal to the love between a woman and a man who really love each other, or between a continent man and God. Let me add, besides, what my “field study” has enabled me to find out. In the works of homosexual (films, novels, biographies, speeches made by many gay people…), I have counted all the subconscious references made to the word “disorder”, and I found a great number of them! (And yet, they were made by people who claimed their homosexual desire was a genuine one!) I have also described the wasteful – i.e. more divisive than unifying, nature of the homosexual desire – through the study of recurring symbols in fiction dealing with homosexuality: faces cut in half, broken bodies, two-headed animals, twins, broken mirrors, schizophrenic doubles, and so on and so forth, all symbolically harping on division. As far as I am concerned, these images are the language of homosexual desire: an impulse that leads more to dispersion and to acts where narcissistic fantasies and impulses prevail, rather than Reality and Truth (which does not mean homosexuals are completely disconnected from the last two).
“I personally find it difficult to understand this statement since homosexuality is part of the person’s structural makeup, even though it may not be genetic in most cases; why should it be a disorder? I am ignorant on the subject, but I sincerely had rather a homosexual could be changed into a heterosexual by means of a therapy of some sort. Yet, from what I’ve read, psychologists believe this is not acceptable, nor advisable, even if some groups support the change and call it conversion, am I right”. Truly, it is not desirable to justify homosexuality with genetics or passing it off as a disease simply because it is not a choice. However, even if I do not claim I am able to distinguish between nature and nurture (to my mind, homosexuality remains a mystery that is best left unsolved, so as to leave the one who feels it complete freedom, not to transform it into a destiny, and avoid “pathologizing” or “essentializing” homosexual desire, thereby conferring it too much importance relatively to the homosexual person), I found that homosexual desire is both an indication of an injury related to a context of real violence (rape, incest, self-contempt, desiring to be an object, social isolation, etc.) and the sign of coincidences and of personal leanings (be they determinant or not) marked by a lack of desire. Then again, one should of course be wary of those group therapies and of all those sects that stigmatize “the” gay person and reduce her to her homosexual desire so as to better eliminate it and pass it for a miraculous conversion to “heterosexuality”. I personally have no time for this, partly because I consider the homosexual orientation neither as a determinant of the whole person who feels it, nor as absolute evil. In addition, what is at stake in terms of sexuality is mysterious and profound: I do not think one can completely change when one is gay, unless one is bisexual. It all depends on how deeply homosexuality is anchored within us. In short, homosexual injury remains an enigma, and I don’t have the key to it. Moreover, we all have something in us to heal… and, clearly, homosexual desire, if indulged in, wounds the person, and indicates a weakness which should not be overlooked. I have noticed that homosexuals around me feel a lot of frustration, fear, shyness, self-hatred, misanthropy (aired in terms of misogyny or misandry), and lack of confidence. This is not specific to homosexual desire (there are other divisive desires), but homosexual desire is marked by this particular disorder.
“So how do you understand your sexual orientation and live by it?” As I write, I try to remain continent. After 29 years of full celibacy, then a period of one year and a half of experimentation in homosexual carnal intercourse with boys, I am gradually but surely returning to continence. In any case, with more confidence. This is a promise that remains to be confirmed over time and using the joy I feel as a yardstick. But so far, I feel I am on the right path! My heart is burning, even more than it used to be!
“Do you agree with the following statement in the same letter? « In reality, we must also acknowledge that those who have a homosexual tendency enjoy the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives it its special dignity. Because of this freedom, and the same applies to any other attempt at total rejection of evil, human effort, informed and sustained by the grace of God, will enable them to avoid homosexual activity”. Do you believe a homosexual person can avoid any sexual activity and should do so for their own good? Do you support the option of chastity for all gay Christians? Or, do you think the Church should be more open? In what direction? For example, do you think the Catholic pastoral care of homosexuals should be oriented towards supporting fidelity in stable homosexual couples?” Yes, I agree with the sentence quoted above, because I believe in the power of God’s work in us. Then again, His work is neither spectacular (it does not require a cripple to run the 100-meter race!), nor euphoric, nor a call for forced marriage, nor an encouragement to ignoring one’s homosexual desire. Quite the contrary. The closer we fearlessly acknowledge our homosexual desire and the “homosexual scene”, aiming at recognizing and understanding how they tick, the less likely we are to merge with it and let it control our lives. Nevertheless, of course, I encourage respect for same-sex couples and I support the loyalty they may have for each other, but have no illusions about their objective frailty. Homosexual love should not be idealized, as it has its own many limitations (and not just because society keeps throwing a spanner in the works; it is the homosexual desire which, inherently, is weak and violent). Conversely, there is no denying it is genuine “love” because, for all its limitations, it actually is, on rare occasions, a way to exchange differences, share tenderness and make sincere commitments, and that is not to be overlooked.
“Is your personal experience of the Church different from the image that is presented just by reading that letter?” I admit that so far, I’ve never met a gay couple that I found really convincing (and not for want of meeting a great many!). But one should never say never. I am an open-minded skeptic. Should I one day meet a gay couple that seems strong and happy over time, I’ll be all too willing to mention it. For the time being, I can only “wait and see”… even though I’m still not convinced by the power of gay love and I know more and more the reasons why.
My experience in the Church itself has not really led me to meet homosexuals living a harmonious combination of faith and homosexuality: either they would try to start a Gay Church and pulling away from the institutionalized Church (I’m thinking of the “David and Jonathan Christian Association”), or I met lonely boys, who repressed their homosexuality while practicing a religion in which they kept their inclination to themselves (very rare occurrences… And I’m thinking of some church people as well…). But I confess that, to date, I know of no boy like me, a practicing Catholic and homosexual, and publicly facing up to both.
Regarding the way homosexuals are treated in churches, I find priests are still shy, even bashful, on the subject. This often makes them awkward, or even somewhat judgmental. The Catholic Church, in practice, is still struggling to take the theme of homosexuality head-on. They’re in need of training, explanations, of a compellingly expressed opinion, on which to rely; this would help avoid blunders and keeping some people away from the church on account of the sole issue of homosexuality.
“Could you recommend a bibliography to enable me to become better informed about this? (Either concerning homosexuality or the Church standpoint)”. I can only recommend works by the like of Xavier Thévenot, Jacques Arènes, or Xavier Lacroix; or, from a secular and psychoanalytical perspective (no less sound), by Jean-Pierre Winter. I have nothing better! Besides, of course, my own book … 😉
“Allow me another question: what do you think about marriages between homosexuals and their adopting children?” As it happens, I have dealt with that issue in my essay. In short, I am neither favorable to gay marriage, nor to their adopting children. In both cases, my priority is respect for gender differences (which a truly loving marriage reinforces) and upholding the family; that’s why I put forward this view. Beware, however! When I say this, I mean to make it perfectly clear that it should not be misinterpreted: I do not sanctify procreation as a way to boost birth rates, and this is no idealization of gender differences either. For love to exist, it is not enough for children to be physically there, or for a couple to be made up of a woman and a man. Not only must the difference between the sexes exist but it must be crowned by a genuine and free desire between two people of different sexes, and then by the arrival of children: these are the prerequisites for it to be a love relationship and a true family.
“Please forgive me, as I realize I have been putting you through a tough questioning session! This should tell you how ignorant I am in these matters. Thank you wholeheartedly for your cooperation. I am looking forward to hearing from you, God bless you. Paula.”
Paula, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity, through your questions-packed mail, to address central issues of homosexuality. Your questions show you have a vibrant faith, and a balanced, sharp, moving and fertile one. It’s great! You ask the right questions, and you allow me to put words on what has been inside me for a long time without ever articulating it that way. Two years ago, an elderly priest and close family friend, read my book and suggested I write a little booklet designed to provide a practical guide on how to welcome homosexuals in the Church. And I feel that through your questioning, his wish has come true. It is impressive to see how the mere mention of the topic of homosexuality triggers such discord, internal / external feuds, and causes so many to stay aloof of the Church. I have observed it even in young adult Catholics still present in our churches. So you’ve raised a critical issue. Thank you for this. So, as a result, I would like to publish the mail I’ve sent you, along with our exchange, on the website for my book. Would you mind? May God, who is all-powerful love, bless you. Sincerely yours, Your (already) Brother Philip.
Note: To find all the reactions to this letter along with my replies, consult this site: Padreblog.fr. This is one of the most visited articles on the site. I wish to thank Father Pierre-Hervé Grosjean and his team of priests for their kind support!